When I was 14 years old, my high school English teacher, an older White man, called me a “feminazi.”
For the life of me, I cannot remember what I said to incite that label. Whatever it was however, I’m not convinced I earned it. In truth, the comment broke me down after he said it. My entire life, I was raised surrounded by strong, empowered women. By the time I could speak, I knew I was a feminist unafraid to use my voice. And as the granddaughter of Jewish Holocaust survivors, I didn’t find the second half of this label particularly clever either. But this was certainly not a unique moment of my childhood.
In 2017, our society began to reevaluate the way it treats women, particularly in the workplace. The #MeToo and Times Up Movements shined a light on gender discrimination, harassment and violence. As a senior in high school, it was the first moment in which I realized that my experience with harassment was not all that different from many other women and girls. Just a year prior, during the 2016 election, it was clear that Hillary Clinton – both the most qualified candidate on paper and the only female – received backlash exclusive to her gender. These derogatory comments came from both sides of the aisle, including from a former presidential campaign manager for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who called the former secretary “ambitious.” During the recent terrorist attack on the Capitol, many female figures were singled out – most significantly was Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. A man degraded the office, acted crudely, left a death threat and called her a “bitch.” Many of the comments he and other insurrections made were directly targeted to her womanhood. To change this rhetoric, action must be taken from a much younger age.
It often seems like almost every industry has their own issues with gender-based harassment and discrimination. But so many of our tendencies and characteristics are built from a young age. When young girls see their female role models put down in the media, it affects the way they grow up. When young girls are themselves put down for speaking up or having an unpopular opinion, it affects the way they grow up. As a society, we need to start building up young girls – from the earliest years – if we are going to change the way the workplace conducts itself on gender-based issues. This change starts with everyone – students, professors, parents, siblings and even strangers. It is within our power to change how we are perceived and to change the age old narratives that women are less than.
Developmental psychology teaches us that our understanding of what makes us different begins very young. The famous doll test asked young children to label White and Black baby dolls and choose which one they prefer. Unsurprisingly, this study, which was used in “Brown v. Board of Education,” found that both Black and White children overwhelmingly preferred the white dolls and considered them superior to the Black dolls. Gender roles and sexism work the same way. Institutional policies like dress codes teach young girls they are objects of desire to be hidden from men. These policies often discriminate not only along gender lines, but racial lines as well. The enforcement of these policies often leads to more drastic and lasting impacts on girls of color – specifically Black girls – than any other group.
Culturally, comments such as “you throw like a girl,” “you’re smart for a girl,” and “feminazi,” build up overtime to the point where being a girl is bad and being a boy is good. It insinuates that throwing “like a girl” is somehow inferior to the way boys throw. Or that because boys are “naturally more intelligent” than being smart, and a girl, is somehow surprising. Ultimately, these types of microaggressions from both our peers, role models and authority figures take on the same effect as the doll study from the mid-20th century. Should we truly intend for these discriminatory concepts to end in adulthood, a culture shift must occur in childhood.
This article appeared in the January 14, 2021 issue of the Hatchet.